Second Meditation on Dictatorship [written March 1, 2008] REPUBLISHED

https _s-media-cache-ak0.pinimg.com_736x_ee_59_33_ee593300e425c02784549e0228c025e1In the begin­ning years of this blog, I pub­lished a series of arti­cles called “Med­i­ta­tions on Democ­racy and Dic­ta­tor­ship” which are still reg­u­larly read today, and have had some influ­ence. They still elicit inquiries from remote cor­ners of the globe. They are now buried in the back pages of the blog, so I’m mov­ing them up the chrono­log­i­cal counter so they can have another round of vis­i­bil­ity, espe­cially (I hope) with younger read­ers. I am re-posting them in their orig­i­nal sequence over part of 2018. Some ref­er­ences in these “med­i­ta­tions” will date them to 2007–2008, when they were writ­ten. But I will leave them un-retouched, though I may occa­sion­ally append some ret­ro­spec­tive notes. Mostly, they deal with abstract issues that do not need updating.


The argu­ment behind this series of med­i­ta­tions is that aris­to­cratic elites, whether they are dressed up in mil­i­tary uni­forms, busi­ness suits, or the regalia of roy­alty, are iden­ti­cal in pur­pose and func­tion. Dif­fer­ences between them are triv­ial and cos­metic, not struc­tural. The term “dic­ta­tor­ship” applies equally to all places where an unelected gang of hood­lums rules over peo­ple and ter­ri­tory, what­ever their sup­posed ide­ol­ogy or what­ever style they chose to prance around in. I fur­ther con­tend that they are nei­ther morally legit­i­mate, nor “gov­ern­ment” in the sense that demo­c­ra­t­i­cally elected admin­is­tra­tions are. Dic­ta­tors are merely crim­i­nals, no dif­fer­ent from the crim­i­nals that rob con­ve­nience stores or attack women in dark­ened car parks. The only dif­fer­ence is the amount of money they steal and the num­ber of peo­ple they mur­der or maim.

Next, I have argued that rule by aris­toc­ra­cies is a con­stant dan­ger to human soci­ety in any time and any place, inde­pen­dent of a society’s level of wealth, or avail­able tech­nol­ogy. I argue that there are no nec­es­sary or pre­des­tined “stages” in the orga­ni­za­tion of human soci­ety. Morally good and ben­e­fi­cial demo­c­ra­tic social arrange­ments can be made at any time and in any place, by any group of peo­ple, large or small. Lan­guage, eth­nic­ity, loca­tion, and degree of wealth are not struc­turally rel­e­vant to demo­c­ra­tic prac­tice, and demo­c­ra­tic prac­tice does not orig­i­nate with, or “belong to” any par­tic­u­lar cul­tural group. Sim­i­larly, dic­ta­tor­ship can occur in any human group. Immoral, dis­eased soci­eties can be made at any time, in any place, by any group of peo­ple, large or small. Both pos­si­bil­i­ties always co-exist.

I then pro­posed that the actions of aris­to­cratic elites are merely the exten­sion of tech­niques employed by psy­cho­log­i­cal bul­lies and con-artists on the per­sonal scale of human inter­ac­tion. In other words, bul­lies, frauds, swindlers and manip­u­la­tors oper­ate as a patho­log­i­cal minor­ity in all human groups. The meth­ods and motives of dic­ta­tors and rul­ing aris­toc­ra­cies, oper­at­ing on the level of nations, are not dif­fer­ent, in any mean­ing­ful way, from those prac­ticed on a small scale among petty crim­i­nals. In all cases, the rulers are com­pletely aware of what they are doing. They are not the prod­ucts of col­lec­tive or “his­tor­i­cal” processes. They are not arriv­ing at dom­i­nance uncon­sciously. None of the “ide­olo­gies” or “philoso­phies” attrib­uted to such patho­log­i­cal per­son­al­i­ties actu­ally have any sig­nif­i­cance. They are merely plausible-sounding “scripts” that rul­ing elites pro­fess to believe, in order to con­fuse and manip­u­late their vic­tims. Rul­ing elites do not believe in any such sys­tems or philoso­phies. They are merely tools for achiev­ing their goals, and can be con­tra­dicted or dis­carded at any time. The basic manip­u­la­tive tech­niques of dic­ta­tor­ship are sim­ple: the man­u­fac­tured image of charisma, the lie, the car­rot, and the stick.

Finally, I have explained what every expe­ri­enced con-artist or swindler knows, that the key to exer­cis­ing con­trol over peo­ple, and get­ting what you want from them, is secur­ing their belief and col­lab­o­ra­tion. It is our col­lab­o­ra­tion ― in the form of accept­ing their claims to be “sov­er­eign gov­ern­ments”, or “lead­ers”, and accord­ing them for­mal and cer­e­mo­nial legit­i­macy — that is at the heart of their power. Because we accept their claims to power and author­ity, their author­ity becomes real. Psy­cho­log­i­cal col­lab­o­ra­tion gives them power, and eco­nomic col­lab­o­ra­tion makes their crimes profitable.

Imag­ine that if every time a cor­ner store was robbed, the rob­ber could sim­ply walk across the street and deposit the stolen money in a bank, and then the neigh­bour­hood busi­ness asso­ci­a­tion agreed that now the rob­ber was the legit­i­mate “owner” of the store, and should be auto­mat­i­cally enrolled in the asso­ci­a­tion as a respectable local busi­ness­man. Sup­pose that the police agreed that any­one who suc­cess­fully robbed a store should not be pur­sued and pros­e­cuted, because they were now a “sov­er­eign body”. It is self-evident that such a pol­icy would lead to unlim­ited armed rob­bery and vio­lence. We would think peo­ple insane if they held such val­ues. Yet that is exactly what we have cho­sen to do with tyran­nies and dictatorships.

Any­one who man­ages to mur­der, rape, and pil­lage on a large enough scale is auto­mat­i­cally rec­og­nized as a “sov­er­eign gov­ern­ment”, accorded a seat in the United Nations, and allowed to deposit the money they steal into Swiss bank accounts. We then allow them to spend that money on Fifth Avenue, the Ginza, or the Champs-Élysées. Their legit­i­macy is rec­og­nized by all, their secu­rity is assured. Arms deal­ers and gov­ern­ments line up to sup­ply them with the weapons which keep them in power. Only the occa­sional one is deposed if he steps on too many toes, or mis­cal­cu­lates a bid for hege­mony. The major­ity can count on accep­tance and security.

Yet peo­ple seem to see noth­ing wrong with this arrange­ment, and grow very hos­tile if one even sug­gests alter­ing it. Even the direct vic­tims of dic­ta­tor­ship will often find them­selves unable to renounce their dic­ta­tors, and will still see them as legit­i­mate. The rela­tion­ship of peo­ple to dic­ta­tor­ships strongly resem­bles that of delu­sional cult mem­bers or of abused wives who refuse to leave a vio­lent hus­band. In both cases, psy­cho­log­i­cally dom­i­nant con-artists have skill­fully manip­u­lated the inse­cu­rity and credulity of their vic­tims in order to sep­a­rate them from the world of rea­son, and iso­late them in a world of delu­sion, unrea­son­ing faith and loy­alty. The abus­ing hus­band alter­nates vio­lent beat­ings with tears and asser­tions of devo­tion, and plays on the des­per­ate need of his vic­tim to be loved, even if the “love” con­sists of bro­ken bones and humil­i­a­tion. The abused wife refuses to have him charged, and goes back for more abuse. The reli­gious cult leader skill­fully plays on the emo­tional needs of his fol­low­ers to manip­u­late them into mak­ing him rich, or sat­is­fy­ing his sex­ual crav­ings. Even after leav­ing the cult, for­mer mem­bers still see the cult leader as a charis­matic father fig­ure, and yearn to find a sub­sti­tute. In both cases, it is the will­ing co-operation of the vic­tims, and the col­lat­eral co-operation of third par­ties, that makes the crime pos­si­ble. The abus­ing hus­band is accepted by other hus­bands as “one of the boys”. The cult leader is accepted as a respectable reli­gious leader in the community.

So it is with dic­ta­tor­ship. Dic­ta­tors get power because they are able to suc­cess­fully acquire loyal fol­low­ers who will carry out their will. Than Shwe doesn’t have to per­son­ally burn dis­si­dents alive… he has sol­diers who will do that for him, and offi­cers who will orga­nize it, and clerks who will enter the details into ledgers, and busi­ness­men who will sell him the incin­er­a­tors and accoun­tants who will add up the costs. Fidel Cas­tro did not have to per­son­ally round up and tor­ture the homo­sex­u­als and poets that he hated. He had loyal hench­men who would do it for him. And he had investors who would pro­vide the cap­i­tal to finance his oper­a­tions. Dic­ta­tors rely on the co-operation of those out­side of their ter­ri­tory, who, by cus­tom and con­ven­tion, agree that they “own” the peo­ple and ter­ri­tory that they control.

That insid­i­ous cus­tom and con­ven­tion pro­claims that they are immune to pun­ish­ment, and immune to the ordi­nary moral cen­sure that human beings are sup­posed to impose on wrong­do­ers. Than Shwe or Fidel Cas­tro can appear in a pub­lic place, and they will be treated as respectable peo­ple. They are celebri­ties, to be fawned on and pam­pered. Diplo­mats will meet them at cock­tail par­ties, shake their hands, and tell jokes to them. Pres­i­dents and Prime Min­is­ters of democ­ra­cies will invite them to their homes for din­ner, or play golf with them. All moral­ity is sus­pended. Dic­ta­tors inhabit a lucra­tive and com­fort­able world, where theft, mur­der, tor­ture, and every other abom­inable crime are not only tol­er­ated, but rewarded. The rich and pow­er­ful agree, uni­ver­sally, that no rulers should ever be pun­ished for what they do to their peo­ple, but they may poten­tially be dis­ci­plined for trans­gres­sions against more pow­er­ful brethren.

So what should decent human beings do, in this bizarre, and obvi­ously sick situation?

The first, and most impor­tant step in oppos­ing dic­ta­tor­ship is for human beings to demand that moral­ity be rec­og­nized and obeyed. We must begin with a moral self-education and self-discipline that trains us to treat dic­ta­tor­ship as it should right­fully be treated. We must per­son­ally, each of us, refuse to accept the lie of dic­ta­to­r­ial legit­i­macy, in any con­text. Our own behav­iour must become morally exact and con­sis­tent. And we must demand that our elected offi­cials obey that morality.

We must never allow the con­cept of “legit­i­mate” dic­ta­tor­ship to be inserted into polit­i­cal analy­sis or dis­course, with­out expos­ing and defy­ing it. We must never allow any politi­cian to engage in any action that legit­imizes dic­ta­tor­ship, with­out denounc­ing and oppos­ing it. We must use what­ever social and demo­c­ra­tic insti­tu­tions we have at our dis­posal to achieve the abo­li­tion of dictatorship.

We should denounce and shun any­one who social­izes with a dic­ta­tor, treats a dic­ta­tor as legit­i­mate, or does any kind of busi­ness with a dic­ta­tor. That shun­ning should be absolute, dra­con­ian, and irrev­o­ca­ble. The atti­tude of a decent human being should be: “Deal with a dic­ta­tor, and I will not only refuse to vote for you, or buy your prod­ucts, but I will not allow you in my home, nor will I shake your hand. Break­ing bread with you is unimag­in­able. I will not allow you any­where near my chil­dren. No one should ever speak to you, or even look at you.” One act of col­lab­o­ra­tion with any dic­ta­tor, of any kind, no mat­ter how insignif­i­cant, should auto­mat­i­cally sever a human being from any con­nec­tion to the human race.

On the polit­i­cal level, we should regard any col­lab­o­rat­ing with a dic­ta­tor­ship as an act of high trea­son. This should be the foun­da­tion stone of our moral val­ues in for­eign rela­tions. What we should be work­ing for polit­i­cally, is a set of con­sti­tu­tional amend­ments that man­date impeach­ment and trea­son charges for any politi­cian who is caught in the same room with a dictator.

That should be the atti­tude of any morally respon­si­ble human being, and that atti­tude should be com­mu­ni­cated loudly, and repeat­edly, to any­one in busi­ness or gov­ern­ment. Con­trary to what we usu­ally imag­ine, politi­cians do respond to being “trained” in this man­ner. There is noth­ing inevitable or nec­es­sary about their col­lab­o­ra­tion with evil. It only occurs because we allow it, because we let them get away with it unpun­ished. We should be pun­ish­ing them for it, pun­ish­ing them hard, pun­ish­ing them as angrily and vig­or­ously as we can. Pun­ish­ing them on elec­tion day, pun­ish­ing them in the opin­ion polls, and pun­ish­ing them by turn­ing our backs on them, spit­ting on them, any­thing that gets the mes­sage across. We are not in a posi­tion to directly pun­ish the dic­ta­tors, at this stage, but we are in a posi­tion to pun­ish our own offi­cials when they col­lab­o­rate with them. That should be the pol­icy and prac­tice of any pro­gres­sive per­son or insti­tu­tion in our soci­ety. It should be the moral behav­iour that is taught in schools. It should be the moral stan­dard acknowl­edged and prac­ticed by all peo­ple in the arts, in sci­ence, in edu­ca­tion, and in schol­ar­ship. A sense of moral out­rage should become the norm in this regard.

This moral cen­sure should not be con­fined to politi­cians alone. If a movie star or rock star pub­licly hangs out with a dic­ta­tor, or sup­ports a non-democratic regime, then the pub­lic should turn against them, and his or her career should quite rightly face ruin. If a busi­ness­man buys or sells from a dic­ta­tor, we should deploy what­ever pub­lic social sanc­tions we can man­age. Boy­cotts and protests are effec­tive in such cases, far more than peo­ple gen­er­ally imag­ine. Even the loss of five per­cent of a mar­ket can destroy the careers of hot shot CEOs and cause turnovers in board­rooms. Civ­i­lized peo­ple should exer­cise those sanc­tions at every opportunity.

It is pre­cisely this kind of moral force that drove the anti-slavery move­ment in the 19th cen­tury, and that, in the United States, put an end to racial seg­re­ga­tion in the 1960s. It was not politi­cians or the wealthy who ini­ti­ated these reforms. It was ordi­nary peo­ple, at first only a very few, who made these things hap­pen. In the begin­ning, only a hand­ful of com­mit­ted indi­vid­u­als acted on their con­sciences. Their con­sis­tency and courage made the lines of choice clear. Slowly, oth­ers were either inspired by their exam­ple, or shamed by it. Grad­u­ally, a new moral norm was estab­lished, and soci­ety mutated to the point where trans­gres­sors could not show their face in respectable com­pany. Polit­i­cal changes fol­lowed. But the polit­i­cal changes would never have been pos­si­ble with­out the under­ly­ing force of indi­vid­ual human beings exer­cis­ing moral choice and conviction.

That is what we should be doing when con­fronted with the fact of dic­ta­tor­ship. Dic­ta­tor­ship is respon­si­ble for the largest por­tion of suf­fer­ing and injus­tice in the world. Poverty, dis­ease, famine, social injus­tices of all kind are mostly the bi-products of dic­ta­tor­ship. If any­one aspires to oppose social injus­tice, or wishes to do some­thing con­crete about poverty and dis­ease, it should be their first pri­or­ity to destroy dic­ta­tor­ship. To accom­plish this, it is nec­es­sary to embrace, pro­claim, prac­tice and pro­mote the moral stan­dards nec­es­sary to oppose dic­ta­tor­ship effec­tively. These val­ues must be con­sis­tent and prac­ticed with­out capri­cious excep­tions. It is not per­mis­si­ble to protest one dic­ta­tor and cod­dle another. No strate­gic align­ment with any dic­ta­tor is morally per­mis­si­ble, in pur­suit of any objec­tive. That goes for both gov­ern­ment poli­cies and the actions of indi­vid­u­als. A human being ― any human being ― can only be rec­og­nized as hon­est and moral if he or she opposes all dic­ta­tor­ship, every­where, with­out exception.

If politi­cians begin to feel the heat of this moral force, if they are called to account by jour­nal­ists when they vio­late fun­da­men­tal moral­ity, and if they find them­selves shunned and denounced at every turn, they will even­tu­ally be forced to change their behav­iour. The process may be a slow and dif­fi­cult one, but what right thing has ever been easy to do?

In the mid­dle of the 18th Cen­tury, a young man in New Jer­sey, John Wool­man, came to the con­clu­sion, at the age of 23, that slav­ery was immoral, and that no decent per­son should profit from it. It took him many years to con­vince a hand­ful of peo­ple of this posi­tion, but by the end of his life, it had been adopted by the major­ity of Quak­ers in Amer­ica and many in Eng­land. From the exam­ple of the Quak­ers, this view­point grad­u­ally won over intel­li­gent and morally sen­si­tive peo­ple, and by the end of the 18th cen­tury had a wide­spread influ­ence. Ver­mont became the first gov­ern­ment to abol­ish slav­ery, fol­lowed soon after by Upper Canada, and then a num­ber of New Eng­land States. A court in Lower Canada in 1803 ruled slav­ery incom­pat­i­ble with the fun­da­men­tal prin­ci­ples of law. Oppo­si­tion to slav­ery spread to Scan­di­navia, then to many other places in Con­ti­nen­tal Europe. In 1834, chat­tel slav­ery was abol­ished, at least legally, through­out the British Empire. The United States had to undergo a tumul­tuous and ago­niz­ing war before the Eman­ci­pa­tion Procla­ma­tion in 1863. But this titanic strug­gle against evil could not have suc­ceeded if peo­ple like John Wool­man, a sim­ple tay­lor and notary, had not pro­claimed and com­mit­ted them­selves to a clear-cut moral posi­tion. It was their moral force that ulti­mately made polit­i­cal changes happen.

Dic­ta­tor­ship is merely a mod­ern ver­sion of the slave trade, prac­ticed by peo­ple who con­trol ter­ri­tory and claim to be “gov­ern­ments”. The ulti­mate elim­i­na­tion of dic­ta­tor­ship calls for the deploy­ment of the same type of moral force as that ear­lier movement.

There are basi­cally two sets of strate­gies nec­es­sary. Those who presently live under dic­ta­tor­ship need to develop one set of strate­gies. Those who live out­side of dic­ta­tor­ship, who can freely express their opin­ions and influ­ence elected gov­ern­ments, should be pur­su­ing another set. The two sets of strate­gies are related, and should be co-ordinated. But in this essay, I’m pri­mar­ily con­cerned with the sec­ond set.

The strat­egy of deploy­ing moral force should serve a sim­ple pur­pose: to get laws passed and poli­cies enacted that make dic­ta­tors suf­fer, cut them off from money, humil­i­ate them, iso­late them, and even­tu­ally destroy them. First, our aim should be to get our gov­ern­ments to renounce all ties and alliances with dic­ta­tors. Then it should be to repu­di­ate recog­ni­tion of dic­ta­tor­ships as legit­i­mate gov­ern­ments. Then we should get laws passed mak­ing it charge­able trea­son for any politi­cian to con­sort with, enter­tain, or com­mu­ni­cate per­son­ally with a dic­ta­tor. We should be demand­ing that the embassies and con­sulates of dic­ta­tor­ships be closed, and that their diplo­mats be expelled. Then we should demand the expul­sion of all dic­ta­tor­ships from inter­na­tional bod­ies, or that democ­ra­cies with­draw from inter­na­tional bod­ies that per­mit dic­ta­tor­ship to par­tic­i­pate. Then, we should push for the enact­ment of laws mak­ing it a crim­i­nal offense to engage in any eco­nomic exchange with a dic­ta­tor, or his hench­men. These should be fol­lowed by laws dis­solv­ing cor­po­ra­tions that do busi­ness with dic­ta­tors. All these demands should be made, one after the other, with unend­ing pres­sure from the bot­tom up. No per­son should be regarded as fit to hold any posi­tion of respectabil­ity or hon­our unless they make these demands.

Par­tic­u­lar atten­tion should be paid to the behav­iour of finan­cial insti­tu­tions. We should demand laws that severely pun­ish any bank that pro­vides finan­cial ser­vices for a dic­ta­tor, or his hench­men, even by indi­rect pro­ce­dures (i.e., num­bered or secret accounts, money-laundering, dummy cor­po­ra­tions). These laws should hold banks respon­si­ble for trans­gres­sions even if they claim to have done them unknow­ingly. Access to inter­na­tional bank­ing ser­vices is the life-blood that makes dic­ta­tor­ship func­tion prof­itably. It is the heart of the mat­ter. If banks out­side our own coun­tries do not con­form to these rules, then they should not be allowed to trans­act busi­ness in our coun­tries. Our goal should be the seizure of all assets held by dic­ta­tors or their hench­men ― so that they can be held in trust for the peo­ple who right­fully own them, the vic­tims of the dic­ta­tors in their own countries.

Ulti­mately, our aim should be to issue war­rants for the arrest of all dic­ta­tors and their rep­re­sen­ta­tives, hench­men, and col­lab­o­ra­tors. These war­rants should man­date the arrest and trial of any of these peo­ple if they set foot on the soil of a democ­racy. The only final result that is morally accept­able to decent human beings would be a “Nurem­berg” trial of all the dic­ta­tors on Earth.

These are all things that can be done through the demo­c­ra­tic process, and through the law. And they are all things which can be done with­out mak­ing war, which invari­ably harms the vic­tims of dic­ta­tor­ship more than it harms the dic­ta­tors them­selves. We must always remem­ber the “ace in the hole” that every dic­ta­tor counts on: they hold their own peo­ple hostage, and many of those hostages are chil­dren. We should never be in the busi­ness of bomb­ing chil­dren to “save” them from dic­ta­tor­ship. We should be focused on elim­i­nat­ing the dic­ta­tors. Stran­gling their blood-flow of money, and mak­ing sure that they can­not ever show their faces in the civ­i­lized world are far more effec­tive than any mil­i­tary swaggering.

But to do this requires a long, slow build-up of social pres­sure from prin­ci­pled indi­vid­u­als. Those indi­vid­u­als must be sure of them­selves, and be will­ing to stand up to the ridicule and counter-pressures they will be sub­jected to. They will be sneered at by intel­lec­tu­als, dis­missed as cra­zies by politi­cians, and under­mined by those who gain finan­cially from col­lab­o­ra­tion with dic­ta­tor­ship. They will feel the lure of con­for­mity. They will grow weary of explain­ing the same obvi­ous facts over and over again, and they will become list­less and dis­con­so­late when progress fails to mate­ri­al­ize quickly. It will be very, very dif­fi­cult to pass the laws we need. All politi­cians will hate them. All rich peo­ple will hate them. All cor­po­rate inter­ests will hate them. Many intel­lec­tu­als will hate them with rabid fanati­cism. All these forces will fight tooth and nail to block them.

The strat­egy of deploy­ing moral force obvi­ously requires patience, since no results can be expected to come quickly, and it requires sac­ri­fice. It is con­ve­nient, and com­fort­able to turn a blind eye to dic­ta­tor­ship. It is con­ve­nient to buy the cheap prod­ucts that dic­ta­tor­ships sup­ply, with their mar­ket advan­tage of slave labour and envi­ron­men­tal rape. It is con­ve­nient to avoid con­fronta­tion with our own élites and big shots. It is tempt­ing to swal­low the illu­sion, ped­dled by all our politi­cians, that dic­ta­tors can be “reformed” by “engage­ment”, bribes, or polite­ness. But moral­ity is not a con­ve­nient or a com­fort­able thing. It requires that you stand up straight as a man or a woman, and fol­low a prin­ci­ple, rather than kiss­ing bums and col­lect­ing the cube of sugar. Moral­ity holds no appeal for most intel­lec­tu­als, who pre­fer the clev­er­ness of realpoli­tik and oppor­tunis­tic moral obfus­ca­tion. Moral­ity holds no appeal for “rad­i­cals” and other poseurs attracted to the bom­bast of “rev­o­lu­tion”. But moral­ity is what is truly rad­i­cal, truly rev­o­lu­tion­ary, and, in the long run, truly effec­tive. In the long run, I think that moral truth, and moral force will win.

Why do I think so? Because the world is grow­ing up. Dic­ta­tor­ship is the prod­uct of igno­rance, cow­ardice, and super­sti­tion. It will be a hor­ri­bly painful process, but we will out­grow it.

Image of the month: a fine bridge

18-10-01 IMAGE Burlington Canal bridgeThe Burling­ton Canal Ver­ti­cal Lift Bridge, in Burling­ton, Ontario — built in 1962. I wish I could credit the pho­tog­ra­pher, who has given it a spe­cial mood and magic.


(Kon­chalovskiy 1997) The Odyssey
(McNaughton 1972) Monty Python’s Fly­ing Cir­cus: Ep.34 ― The Cycling Tour
(Cim­ber 1984) Yel­low Hair and the Fortress of Gold
(Trelfer 2018) Dark Cor­ners Review: (313) Yel­low Hair and the Fortress of Gold
(Bridge 2017) How the Uni­verse Works: Ep.42 ― Strangest Alien Worlds
(Betuel 1985) My Sci­ence Project
(Williamson 2018) How the Uni­verse Works: Ep.43 ― Are Black Holes Real?
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First-time listening for September 2018

29844. (Dan­ger [Franck Rivoire] ) 太鼓 [Taiko]
29845. (Paul Oak­en­fold) Essen­tial Mix: Live in China
29856. (Kanye West & Kid Cudi) Kids See Ghosts
29857. (Giro­lamo Fres­cobaldi) Ricer­car #9 con quat­tro soggetti for Harp­si­chord
29858. (Giro­lamo Fres­cobaldi) Can­zona #4 for Harp­si­chord
29859. (Giro­lamo Fres­cobaldi) Can­zona #3 detta la Criv­elli for Harp­si­chord
29860. (Giro­lamo Fres­cobaldi) Par­tite sopra Folia for Harp­si­chord Read more »


27509. (Bar­bara Newhall Fol­lett) The House With­out Win­dows and Eepersip’s Life There
27510. (John Ljungkvist & Per Frölund) Gamla Upp­sala ― The Emer­gence of a Cen­tre and a
. . . . . Mag­nate Com­plex [arti­cle]
27511. (John T. Koch) La fór­mula epi­grafica Tarte­sia a la luz de los des­cubriemien­tos de la
. . . . . necrópo­lis de Medel­lín [arti­cle]
27512. (E. Lynn & Chuck Mor­ton) Fer­rets
27513. (Zhuo Feng et al) Late Per­mian Wood-borings Reveal an Intri­cate Net­work of
. . . . . Eco­log­i­cal Rela­tion­ships [arti­cle]
Read more »

27492. (Homer) The Odyssey [tr. Stephen Mitchell]

Ulysse et Télémaque massacrent les prétendants de Pénélope. (1812) Thomas Degeorge

Ulysse et Télé­maque mas­sacrent les pré­ten­dants de Péné­lope (1812) by Thomas Degeorge

Before the fatal attrac­tion of Sci­ence Fic­tion, my early child­hood read­ing was dom­i­nated by dinosaurs, jun­gles, vol­ca­noes and tales of explor­ers and sci­en­tists. But there was also a niche set aside for ancient myth, par­tic­u­larly Greek myths. I read a crum­bling old copy of Charles Kingsley’s The Heroes: Perseus, Jason, The­seus, and Jason in par­tic­u­lar appealed to me, a taste firmly cemented by repeated view­ings of Harry Harrihausen’s mag­i­cal stop-motion effects in the film Jason and the Arg­onauts. I also pos­sessed (I’m not sure how) a lit­tle blue book, some­thing pro­ferred as “edu­ca­tional” from a Cana­dian pub­lisher, enti­tled Clas­si­cal Mythol­ogy in Song and Story: Part Two, Epic Heroes. It was choc full of line draw­ings from some uncred­ited artist. These were rea­son­ably good, and some were quite sexy. But most delight­ful of all, the two end­pa­pers were maps, show­ing in a ser­pen­tine dot­ted line the jour­ney — it actu­ally said “wan­der­ings” in the map ― of Odysseus. The land of the lotus-eaters was Tunisia. Scylla and Charib­dis stood fero­ciously on either side of the straight sep­a­rat­ing Sicily from Cal­abria. No doubt this explains the pre­pon­der­ance of Ital­ian immi­grants to Canada from those two provinces. I can’t express how much maps meant to me at that age. Maps were my cat­nip. Put a map on the end-papers of any­thing, and I would read it.

The retellings of the myths in these two books were in old-fashioned styles, a mix­ture of late 19th cen­tury British and 1930’s Cana­dian prose. I rated the var­i­ous heroes dif­fer­ently. Her­cules, a mere mus­cle­man with obvi­ously lim­ited intel­li­gence, struck me as more of a “hero” for the bul­lies that waited to pounce on me on the way to school. The pompous char­ac­ters of the Iliad did not impress me at all, and the Tro­jan War didn’t seem very inter­est­ing. For all that I liked Jason, he was too depen­dent on help from var­i­ous gods, ora­cles, and crew­men. The Arg­onau­tica is a pretty good story, but Jason him­self is basi­cally just a generic teen adven­ture hero. It’s with the retelling of the Odyssey that the book hit gold. Odysseus was no pink-cheeked ado­les­cent, cer­tainly no wimp, and obvi­ously had a brain… though not nec­es­sar­ily the best judge­ment. The adven­tures were not a mere parade of mon­sters. The Cyclops was not just a dan­ger­ous ani­mal, but a par­tic­u­larly grue­some oppo­nent that Odysseus could con­verse with and out­wit. There were sub­tler per­ils, mostly vari­ants of the femme fatale, and the temp­ta­tions of drug-induced ecstasy and time­less­ness. Odysseus even goes to Hell ― the mor­bid cold and misty Hell of the Greeks, not the silly bar­be­cued Chris­t­ian Hell.

Even­tu­ally, I read the actual epic, first in the Richard Lat­ti­more trans­la­tion, then later in the Pen­guin Clas­sics ver­sion trans­lated by E. V. Rieu. But it wasn’t quite the same. As a teenager and an adult, read­ing could not have the same sense of spon­ta­neous rev­e­la­tion that it had for a small child. The Odyssey ceased to be a “story” and became “lit­er­a­ture,” con­sumed with the same pedan­tic indus­try that I read Chaucer, Hem­ing­way or Tobias Smol­lett. That is to say, not with­out appre­ci­a­tion and plea­sure, but not with the wide-eyed gusto of a small child unwrap­ping a Crispy Crunch bar.

Clas­sics are sel­dom reread, even by omniv­o­rous read­ers. Most of the book­ish peo­ple I know have read an assort­ment of clas­sics in their high school or col­lege years, then filed them away in mem­ory, feel­ing lit­tle urge to look at them again with the per­spec­tive of age. There are far too many newer things com­pet­ing for atten­tion. Grad­u­ally, such clas­sics dim into vague impres­sions, sta­tic snap­shots of par­tic­u­lar scenes, or trun­cated plot sum­maries. Moby Dick the whale is God. Anna Karen­ina throws her­self under a train. Gar­gan­tua wipes his ass with a duck.

But I’m a chronic rereader. Even some appar­ently sim­ple books never seem to come out the same on suc­ces­sive read­ings. I’ve read Edgar Pangborn’s A Mir­ror For Observers eight times. I’m look­ing for­ward to the ninth. I would no more be fin­ished with it than I would cease lis­ten­ing to “St. James Infir­mary Blues” because I’ve already heard it. So I’ve just reread The Odyssey, after many years, this time in the 2013 trans­la­tion by Stephen Mitchell, whose prodi­gious indus­try has already pro­duced an Iliad, a Gil­gamesh, and a Bha­gavad Gita. Any­one tak­ing on the task of trans­lat­ing an ancient work is faced with a basic choice at the very start: whether to use “ele­vated” lan­guage or “col­lo­quial” lan­guage, or some com­pro­mise between the two. Mitchell chose the col­lo­quial approach with­out com­pro­mise, notice­ably more than either Lat­ti­more or Rieu. I can under­stand this, because an “ele­vated” style does not come eas­ily either to an Eng­lish lan­guage reader or to an Eng­lish lan­guage writer. In soci­eties where caste and class are inte­gral to every aspect of life the use of a spe­cial “high” lan­guage in poetry or prose comes nat­u­rally enough ― in some lan­guages there is an entirely dif­fer­ent sys­tem of gram­mar for aris­to­cratic or poetic speech. But most English-speaking soci­eties do not hold class and caste as sacred ideals, and in Eng­lish such a lin­guis­tic dis­tinc­tion con­veys only insin­cer­ity. As a triv­ial, but illus­tra­tive exam­ple, con­sider record­ings of pop­u­lar songs by opera stars. Oper­atic singers are taught a very spe­cific for­mula of enun­ci­a­tion, based on the Ital­ian val­ues of vow­els and con­so­nants, designed to make opera lyrics clearer and show off the exact­ing vocal dis­ci­pline of oper­atic singing. We are not expected to fall into a sus­pen­sion of dis­be­lief in which we are truly expe­ri­enc­ing the pow­er­house lungs of the diva as a frail con­sump­tive waif com­mit­ting sui­cide. Opera singers can’t aban­don this dis­ci­pline and enun­ci­ate like a Cana­dian accoun­tant, a sheep rancher in the Aus­tralian out­back, or a teenager in Van Nuys, Cal­i­for­nia. So no mat­ter how much verve or tech­ni­cal skill they put into a pop­u­lar song, it is bound to give an impres­sion of arti­fi­cial­ity and false emo­tion. The pop­u­lar singer’s enun­ci­a­tion matches that of col­lo­quial lan­guage, and thus sounds more sin­cere. How­ever, an Ital­ian oper­atic aria does not sound the least bit insin­cere to an Ital­ian. The same dis­ci­plined enun­ci­a­tion can be applied to an Ital­ian folk­song or pop song, and Pavarotti could switch from Verdi’s De’ miei bol­lenti spir­iti” to the folksy Neapoli­tan Fen­esta vas­cia” with­out bat­ting an eye. The clos­est that one usu­ally comes to see­ing the use of the “ele­vated” lan­guage con­ven­tion in Eng­lish is in 1950’s his­tor­i­cal movies set in ancient Rome, where the Sen­a­tors all speak in British Shake­spear­ian Stage accents, the cen­tu­ri­ons are Amer­i­cans, and the slaves are Cock­neys or come from Brook­lyn. This is not a viable tem­plate for trans­lat­ing the Odyssey if one expects it to be read with­out laughing.

One thing I noticed this time around is that the Odyssey is noth­ing like a “folk epic”. I’ve read or heard quite a few exam­ples of gen­uine folk epics, and this work doesn’t even remotely resem­ble them. It gives every indi­ca­tion of being the con­scious prod­uct of a sin­gle author who con­ceived of it as a uni­fied work, in short of being “lit­er­a­ture”, even if it was com­posed and per­formed orally. That is not to say that it doesn’t con­tain folk­loric ele­ments. I think what Homer (or whomever) was doing was tak­ing a body of exist­ing folk song, itself based on an estab­lished mythol­ogy, and embed­ding it into a coher­ent nar­ra­tive, which is in turn framed by an over­ar­ch­ing meta-narrative. There is noth­ing impromptu about any of this con­struc­tion. Every­where in it one sees the fin­ger­prints of a writer, some­one care­fully select­ing ele­ments, view­ing them from mul­ti­ple angles, cal­cu­lat­ing their tim­ing and effect, and using them as instru­ments of emo­tional manip­u­la­tion. The “hero” of the con­structed work is not Odysseus, but young Telemachus, who occu­pies a large part of the total nar­ra­tive, and whose trans­for­ma­tion from inef­fec­tual youth to effec­tive adult is deter­mined at first by the absence of his father, then by his uncov­er­ing indi­rect evi­dence of his father’s adven­tures from tes­ti­mony, then finally by Odysseus’ return­ing and re-establishing his her­itage. As a reflec­tion of this process, Telemachus is guided by Athena in the form of the vis­i­tor Men­tor. Odysseus’ fan­tas­tic adven­tures are embed­ded in this meta-frame in frag­men­tary form. Every­where in the nar­ra­tive it is the psy­cho­log­i­cal, not the phys­i­cal events that are empha­sized. No mat­ter how many mon­sters appear, most of the nar­ra­tive is like a real­is­tic novel:

While they were speak­ing Eurýnome and the nurse were mak­ing the bed by torch­light, spread­ing upon it soft sheets and blan­kets. And when they had fin­ished their work, soft sheets and blan­kets. And when they had fin­ished their work, Eurycléa went back to her room for the night, and Eurýnome, hold­ing a torch, accom­pa­nies them to the bed­room and left them there. And in great joy the two of them lay at last in each other’s arms. Telemachus and the cowherd and swine­herd stopped danc­ing, and told the women to stop as well and dis­missed them, and then they went to sleep in the shad­owy hall. When Pene­lope and Odysseus had taken their plea­sure in the joys of love, they told each other their sto­ries. She told him of every­thing she had endured in the palace with the despi­ca­ble crowd of suit­ors encamped there, using her as an excuse to slaugh­ter so many cat­tle and sheep and to drink so much of their wine. And Odysseus told her of his great exploits in war, the suf­fer­ing he had inflicted and what he had suf­fered on his way home, and she lis­tened to him, enchanted, and she did not close her eyes until he had finished.

There are as many female char­ac­ters in the Odyssey as there are male, and the nar­ra­tive either puts them in fore­front, has them behav­ing proac­tively, or attempts to describe their points of view. It is Helen, not Menelaus, who tells Telemachus and the assem­bled ban­queters the tale of Odysseus’ fight­ing at Troy. Folk epics sim­ply don’t do these things, and they are not the prod­uct of the sim­ple accre­tion of folk tales or folk songs into a col­lec­tive tra­di­tional epic. This is a delib­er­ate, uni­fied work of lit­er­a­ture. Yes, there is a body of mythol­ogy and song already known to the audi­ence, just as Her­mann Melville expected his read­ers to already know the bible sto­ries that make Moby Dick com­pre­hen­si­ble, but they are made into some­thing which the audi­ence under­stands exists for and of itself. In fact, when­ever Homer is about to use a pre-existing seg­ment of nar­ra­tive, he telegraphs this by his phras­ing and the way he leads into it. These ele­ments are like film-clips. We are invari­ably told how they are known, and why we are being told them — some­thing which folk epics rarely, if ever, do. The result is no more a folk epic or a col­lec­tive endeav­our than is Milton’s Par­adise Lost.

Another thing I noticed is the promi­nent role that drugs play in the nar­ra­tive. There are more than the Lotus Eaters and the potions of Circe:

And as they were wash­ing, Helen had an idea. Into the wine that they were to drink, she slipped a drug that dis­solved all grief and anger and ban­ished remem­brance of every sor­row. Who­ever drank this, once it was mixed in, would not be able to feel a moment of sad­ness that day, or to shed one tear ― not even if both their mother and father died or if some­one came and stabbed his son or brother in front of his eyes and he looked on as it hap­pened. It was one of the potent drugs that the daugh­ter of Zeus had been given by Poly­dámna, the wife of Thon, a woman of Egypt, the land where the rich earth pro­duces the great­est sup­ply of drugs, of which many are ben­e­fi­cial, and many are poisonous.

A Roman mosaic portraying the Odyssey. Its stories were known to everyone --- literally thousands of murals, mosaics an painted pottery portraying it have survived, doubtless a tiny fraction of those that once existed.

A Roman mosaic por­tray­ing the Odyssey. Its story was known to every­one — lit­er­ally thou­sands of murals, mosaics and painted pot­tery ves­sels por­tray­ing it have sur­vived, a tiny frac­tion of those that once existed.

It’s not clear how much of the Odyssey can con­nect with a mod­ern reader. The motives, val­ues and behav­iours are, after all, those of the ancient world, and these over­lap, but are not con­gru­ent with those of today. The Renais­sance and espe­cially the Enlight­en­ment read­ing audi­ences were much more inter­ested in Telemachus’ role than in Odysseus’ mon­sters and dal­liances. It is not at all obvi­ous to the mod­ern reader why Telemachus was seen by Voltaire and Thomas Jef­fer­son as a sym­bol of lib­erty and rea­son, enshrined in Fénelon’s Les aven­tures de Télé­maque (1699), which earned its author polit­i­cal exile. In the tumul­tuous 18th Cen­tury, there were operas about Telemachus by Scar­latti, Gluck, Destouche, Sor, Gaz­zaniga, Le Sueur and Mayr.. far more than there were about Odysseus. Gluck’s Telemaco is still widely per­formed. But the 19th Cen­tury saw lit­tle of inter­est in either Telemachus or Odysseus, and despite the pres­tige of Homer, an atti­tude set­tled in that the Odyssey was an embar­rass­ing vul­gar com­mer­cial work that Homer must have ground out for the plebs to pay the rent while per­fect­ing the higher-prestige Iliad ― or bet­ter yet that he didn’t write at all. So it was the Odyssey for the kid­dies and the Iliad for the adults. Only James Joyce, so it seems, thought oth­er­wise. This was quite log­i­cal in an age when “seri­ous” was equated with “real­ist” and pres­tige lit­er­a­ture was not sup­posed to have mon­sters in it. Half the best books of the 20th Cen­tury were ignored under the influ­ence of that premise. The 21st Cen­tury has seen a renewal of inter­est in the Odyssey, along with all forms of imag­i­na­tive, non-realist literature.

Kirk Douglas and Rossana Podestà in Ulysses (1954)

Kirk Dou­glas & Rossana Podestà in Ulysses (1954)

As well as reread­ing the great epic, I also indulged in view­ing some of its cin­e­matic inter­pre­ta­tions. First, I watched the Italian-made Ulysses [Ulisse (1954) d. Mario Camerini], with most of the minor roles dubbed, but the parts of Kirk Dou­glas and Anthony Quinn acted in Eng­lish. Sil­vana Man­gana appears as both Circe and Pene­lope. Telemachus is played by Franco Inter­lenghi, who is lit­tle known out­side of Italy, but began a pro­lific film career at age 15 in Vit­to­rio De Sica’s Scius­cià, and for years rivaled Mar­cello Mas­trioanni as a roman­tic lead. Rossana Podestà is a sexy Nau­si­caa. Dou­glas’ usu­ally annoy­ing smirk is well suited to a Wily Ulysses [Odysseus], and he does quite a good job. The script doesn’t stray far from the orig­i­nal, though it selects a few seg­ments to con­cen­trate on and omits some oth­ers. The Cyclops devour­ing Greeks scene is pretty graphic for the 1950s. Next, I saw the 1997 tele­vi­sion minis­eries The Odyssey star­ring Armand Assante, who por­trays Odysseus as not so much wily as grumpy. The series is lit­tered with celebrity walk-ons: Isabella Rossellini, Eric Roberts, Irene Papas, Geral­dine Chap­lin, Christo­pher Lee, some of which are rather strange cast­ing, e.g. Bernadette Peters as Circe, and Michael J. Pol­lard as Aeo­lus (!) As with the 1954 ver­sion, this minis­eries is rea­son­ably faith­ful to the orig­i­nal. The same can­not be said for Odysseus: Voy­age to the Under­world (2008, d. Terry Ingram), a Romania/Canada/UK co-production filmed in Canada. It bills itself as ” the tale Homer felt was too hor­rific to tell; the miss­ing book of The Odyssey”. Yup. There is also a long French minis­eries from 2013 that I haven’t been able to find.

First Meditation on Dictatorship [written Thursday, February 7, 2008] REPUBLISHED

https _s-media-cache-ak0.pinimg.com_736x_ee_59_33_ee593300e425c02784549e0228c025e1In the begin­ning years of this blog, I pub­lished a series of arti­cles called “Med­i­ta­tions on Democ­racy and Dic­ta­tor­ship” which are still reg­u­larly read today, and have had some influ­ence. They still elicit inquiries from remote cor­ners of the globe. They are now buried in the back pages of the blog, so I’m mov­ing them up the chrono­log­i­cal counter so they can have another round of vis­i­bil­ity, espe­cially (I hope) with younger read­ers. I am re-posting them in their orig­i­nal sequence over part of 2018. Some ref­er­ences in these “med­i­ta­tions” will date them to 2007–2008, when they were writ­ten. But I will leave them un-retouched, though I may occa­sion­ally append some ret­ro­spec­tive notes. Mostly, they deal with abstract issues that do not need updating.

14-03-18 - BLOG Memorial-at-Lidice-1st-Med-on-Dic

Mon­u­ment at Lidice.
The faces of the chil­dren are not gen­er­al­ized abstrac­tions. They are care­fully recon­structed from pho­tographs to rep­re­sent the indi­vid­ual chil­dren as they were in life.

We are so hamyd,
For-taxed and ramyd,
By these gentlery-men!

― The Wake­field Sec­ond Shep­herds’ Play, c.1425–1450 [1]

We are men the same as they are:
Our mem­bers are as straight as theirs are,
Our bod­ies stand as high from the ground,
The pain we suffer’s as pro­found.
Our only need is courage now,
To pledge our­selves by solemn vow,
Our goods and per­sons to defend,
And stay together to this end…

— Robert Wace, Le roman de la Rou et des ducs de Nor­mandie, 1160-70s [2]

On my return to Prague, last year, after tramp­ing in Hun­gary and Tran­syl­va­nia, my friend Filip Marek took a day off for some more explo­rations of the Bohemian coun­try­side. This turned out to be the most emo­tion­ally charged day in my trav­els, and I’ve delayed describ­ing it because of its per­sonal impor­tance to me.

The land­scape around Prague is not much dif­fer­ent, at first glance, from that of South­ern Ontario. It’s rich farm­land, gen­tly rolling hills, and patches of mixed for­est sim­i­lar to those around Toronto. Most of it was so pleas­ant that I couldn’t help replay­ing snatches of Dvořák, Smetana and Janáček in my head as the car rolled under the dap­pled sun­lit trees, past fields and vil­lages that seem to be both ancient and brand new at the same time. How­ever, our quest was to extract some­thing incon­gru­ously dis­turb­ing and tragic from Bohemia’s woods and streams.[3] We were going to see two places that do not loom large in the his­tory books, but loom large in the kind of his­tory that I am con­cerned with. The first was the Vojna Hard Labour Camp, in the for­est near the vil­lage of Příbram, and the sec­ond was the site of Lidice, a vil­lage that no longer exists. Read more »

Image of the month: Lilies of the Amazon

Victoria Regia Water Lily and Lily PadsNymphaea vic­to­ria ama­zon­ica, an extra­or­di­nary species of water lily found in shal­low bay­ous and side-channels of the Ama­zon River, most of all in its immense delta. The float­ing leaf-pads may exceed 3 meters in width.


(Salkow 1940) The Lone Wolf Strikes
(Hellings 1985) Doc­tor Who: Ep.631 ― The Mark of Rani, Part 1
(Hellings 1985) Doc­tor Who: Ep.632 ― The Mark of Rani, Part 2
(Honda 1966) Franken­stein Con­quers the World [aka Franken­stein vs. Baragon]
(Tenold 2018) Brandon’s Cult Movie Reviews: Franken­stein Con­quers the World
(Bridge 2015) How the Uni­verse Works: Ep.28 ― Mon­ster Black Hole
(Mof­fatt 1985) Doc­tor Who: Ep.633 ― The Two Doc­tors, Part 1
(Mof­fatt 1985) Doc­tor Who: Ep.634 ― The Two Doc­tors, Part 2
(Mof­fatt 1985) Doc­tor Who: Ep.635 ― The Two Doc­tors, Part 3
(Gian­cola 1994) Time Chasers [Mys­tery Sci­ence The­atre Ver­sion]
Read more »

First-time listening for August 2018

29262. (Gio­vanni Bononcini) Astarto [com­plete opera; d. Biondi; Valen­tini, dalle Molle,
. . . . . Müller-Molinari]
29263. (Wale [Olubowale Vic­tor Akin­time­hin]) Ambi­tion
29264. (Brian Ferry) These Fool­ish Things
29265. (Johann Sebas­t­ian Bach) Can­tata #80a “Alles, was von Gott geboren” [vari­ant of #80]
29266. (Higher Intel­li­gence Agency) Colour­form
29267. (Pro­col Harum) Shine On Brightly
29268. (Johann Sebas­t­ian Bach) Can­tata #81 “Jesus schläft, was soll ich hof­fen?”, bwv.81
29269. (Johann Sebas­t­ian Bach) Can­tata #82 “Ich habe genug”, bwv.82
29670. (Charley Pride) The Pride of Coun­try Music
Read more »